Not many people pay attention to the little 6 inch by 12 inch piece of aluminum that is attached (or, at least, supposed to be attached!) to every vehicle in the state of Indiana. While Indiana is not the first to require a state issued license plate for motor vehicles, it was a decade after Massachusetts required them that the Hoosier State got on the band wagon. (As an aside, all the states adopted state issued license plates by 1918.)
The state started requiring motor vehicles be registered with the Secretary of State starting in 1905. When the vehicle was registered, the state issued a small dashboard disk with the legend “Registered In The Office of Secretary of State of Indiana Under The Motor Vehicle Law No. XXXXX.” The XXXXX was the registration number. That number was used, by the person owning the car, to have their license plate created in any form they chose. I recommend checking out LeatherLicensePlates to see examples of user created license tags. According to that site, the registrations changed in the middle of 1907, requiring users to make new plates. License plates at the time were issued to the vehicle and owner, and didn’t expire. Some of the pictures of pre-state plates are absolutely amazing.
The first state issued plate (shown left) was in 1913. Many states that were issuing government plates, to this point, had been using porcelain on steel construction. This same type of signage was used for advertising into the 1950s (maybe later). Also, as other states had been doing, the plates weren’t of a uniform size. The short measurement of the plate was 4.5 inches, with the length being as little as necessary to put the number and legend on the steel. The next picture, taken from porcelainplates.net, shows a low number version of this same issue. The state required vehicles have these plates starting 1 July 1913.
There were, according to sources, several problems with the first year license plates. This led the state government to start, in 1914, issuing license plates made of embossed steel with painted numbers. These plates were issued each year, with different colors for each year. All plates issued between 1914 and 1927 had the legend “IND” and the year on the right edge of the steel. Cars were issued with up to a six digit number, with the size varying depending on the registration number. Issues from the years 1928 to 1930 had the “INDIANA – year” legend below the registration number. Between 1931 and 1942, the legend was alternated between above and below the registration number, with odd numbered years being above.
From the very beginning, Indiana required both a front and rear plate on vehicles. As such, these plates were issued in pairs. This changed in 1943. With metal shortages during World War II in full swing, the governor asked for Hoosiers to turn in any old license plates and the front 1942. A smaller black “tag” type plate was issued for 1943. This was attached above the 1942 on the rear of the vehicle. The format of these were “NNN NNN IND 43.” 1944 also had a smaller issued plate, in an effort to save metal.
In 1945, Indiana began to issue full sized license plates again. Between 1945 and 1951, the legend alternated from top to bottom. In odd number years, the state name appeared above the number, with the two digit year below it. Even numbered years had the opposite locations. Just like the pre-1943 years, the colors changed every year. The only change to this point would occur in 1950. Before 1950, registration numbers were just that, numbers. Starting in 1950, license plates in Indiana started being issued by county, with two letters and up to four numbers. The two letters showed the county of issue. Unlike the later system (described later), the letters were in order of the county’s population, not the county name. For instance, AA-AU were for Marion County, BB-BH were issued in St. Joseph County, and so on.
The next difference in plates would be for 1952 and 1953, when the state issued small metal tabs to be screwed onto the 1951 plate. These were one inch high, with the same numbering system as used in 1950 and 1951. Full size plates were again issued in 1954, following the same legend scheme as was used since 1945. In 1955, another tab was issued. This time the registration number was just that, a number. One from my personal collection follows.
After 1955, the state issued alternating plates. In 1956 and 1958, the plates had a yellow legend, on a blue background. The “IND – 56 (58)” appeared below the registration code, with the words “DRIVE SAFELY” above it. 1957 was dark blue on yellow, with the same legends as 1956 and 1958, only the “DRIVE SAFELY” was below the registration. 1959 had the same color scheme as the 1957, with the “IND – 59” again appearing above the plate number. Instead of drive safely, the 1959 read “LINCOLN YEAR.”
The 1960, 1961 and 1962 issues had the legend “SAFETY PAYS” on different colored plates (1960 white on blue, 1961 white on red and 1962 yellow on black). The state abbreviation and year alternated in the same pattern as the previous years: even below, odd above. The safety pays legend was opposite the year.
The numeric county codes started appearing in 1963. The 1963 issue had the county code in smaller numbers, with a letter and up to four numbers following in a larger size. This would change again in 1964, with the county code number and the four following numbers being the same size, with a smaller “branch” letter between the two. This scheme would be followed until the end of the numeric codes in 2008. The state name, completely spelled out, would appear at the bottom of the plate in odd number year until 1969. It was the opposite in even number years. Opposite the state name would be the year of issue. Except in 1966, where the words “150TH YEAR” was at the top, with “IND – 66” at bottom.
1966 was also the first year that Indiana stopped using painted metal for the license plates. The painted metal was replaced with reflective sheeting, commonly referred to as “Scotchlite.” (Those who know their reflective sheeting know that it is also commonly called “type 1.” The newest reflective material that is used, especially on interstate “BGSs (big green signs)” is type 6.) This has the unfortunate side effect that most 1966 plates are very cracked. Finding one in very good condition is hard, at best.
Indiana changed the license plate layout again in 1970. For years to this point, all plates expired on 31 March of the year after the one printed on the tag. In 1970, a plan was put in place to have registrations expire by the last name of the owner, ending in June. (My last name, Simpson, meant my plates expired in May.) Company registered plates expired in January. The 1970-1972 issues had the year and state at the top (IND – 70, 71 – IND, IND -72). At the bottom was a place for a sticker and the year of expiration. The issues of 1973-1975 stopped putting the year of issue on the plate. It was replaced with the word “INDIANA.” The month and year of expiration still appeared at the bottom. (For example, my 1975 plate had a white on red “MAY” sticker and the year “76.”
Indiana got into the graphic issues starting in 1976. This was also the last time the year of issue was used on the license plates. All Indiana plates after this point only had the year of expiration on them (whether it be printed or on the stickers). (This is a bone of contention among license plate collectors. Some claim that the plate is issued by the year printed on it. I, for example, organize my plates by the year of issue, which is the year before the year printed on it. According to the logic of the former, there was no 1977 Indiana, and two Indiana 1976s. That makes no sense to me at all. If it’s any consolation, the BMV’s website lists the years by issue.)
Only several changes occurred since the graphics issues started. In 1981, state law was changed to allow plates to be used for three years, instead of a new piece of metal to be issued every year. That would change in 1993, when the state law changed again to allow five year issues. The next change occurred in 2003 when the embossed plates were change to flat issues. The last one was mentioned above: 2008 saw the end of the county code registration numbers, with the county code in number form on the plate, usually in the lower right hand corner.
I want to mention that the above images of my personal collection show rusted and/or bent examples. I am one that doesn’t believe in “restoring” license plates. This is a personal preference. So, my 100+ year old plates (I own matching pairs of both 1914 and 1915 Pennsylvania license plates) look exactly as they would after such a long time.
It should be mentioned that Indiana, in 2008, also passed a YOM, or “year of manufacture” law when the county codes disappeared. This allows anyone owning a car over 25 years old to register the car with a license plate from the year of the car’s manufacture. For example, if I still had my (most favorite!) 1989 Dodge Shadow, it would be possible for me to put the below pictured license plate on it legally.